For decades women were a sideshow in the masculine world of professional wrestling, wearing skimpy bathing suits to provide sexual appeal alongside faked destruction.
Then came the woman who broke the mold and redefined the sport.
Joan Laurer, better known as “Chyna,” broke the glass on the boys club of wrestling in the early 1990s. She was a real performer in a sport that has gone back and forth on the role of women. She was so cut and bulky, that she played a role no woman had played before: She was an enforcer.
On Wednesday, the 46-year-old was found dead in her Redondo Beach, Calif., apartment. The Los Angeles County coroner’s department told USA Today that the death was a possible overdose. The results from the final toxicology reports won’t be released for several weeks.
Chyna, who dared to join the men in the ring, follows a tragic, yet familiar path for WWE wrestlers, joining the likes of Eddie Guerrero, the Ultimate Warrior, Rick Rude, Curt “Mr. Perfect” Hennig and Owen Hart, who also passed young.
Her impact will be lasting, wrestling insiders say.
“Vince McMahon saw the uniqueness and the novelty of a woman … who could believably get in the ring and not really expose the business and make it look fake that a woman was competing with a man,” said Kevin Eck, a former WWE creative team member who writes about wrestling at The Eck Factor. “She just stood out. When she walked into a room, you certainly knew she was somebody.
Eck said he thinks her look is what helped her cross over into the world of professional wrestling.
“She had a very heavily-muscled, hulking kind of physique,” he said.
Eck interviewed Chyna twice over the phone, once in 2002 and again in 2011. He also met her at the Maryland Championship Wrestling event in February.
He said she looked healthy, and she was nice and engaging with her fans. Her death, though, made him recall something she said to him in that first interview.
“She said eventually she wanted to get married, settle down, have kids and grow old,” Eck said. “I think she was very alone, even though she was a famous person.”
However, on Sunday she posted this video to her YouTube page, in which she looks like she has a bruised right eye. (Warning: The content of the video is disturbing.)
Chyna found professional wrestling by watching it on TV, but she didn’t want to play the roles that women typically played.
“The girl wrestlers?” she wrote in “If They Only Knew,” her 2001 autobiography, “Forget it. They were all T&A and not nearly as interesting. Wrestling. ‘I can do that!’ I remember shouting at the TV.”
Chyna gave herself the moniker of “9th Wonder of the World” since her career followed Andre the Giant’s, who dubbed himself the eighth wonder. She was the only female to ever hold the Intercontinental Championship — and she held it twice. She also was an original member of D-Generation X, which came about during the “Attitude Era” of professional wrestling.
She became Paul “Triple H” Levesque’s bodyguard in the ring and eventually a relationship blossomed between the two. Chyna left the WWE in 2001 following her breakup with Levesque.
The WWE is currently touring in the UK, and the Daily Mirror caught up with Levesque for an exclusive interview:
“It is obviously tragic and clearly my well-wishes go out to her friends and family,” he said. “Brilliance sometimes, and that ability to push barriers and boundaries and be a pioneer, is often connected closely with other things that aren’t so positive sometimes, and demons, and unfortunately that is the case.”
WWE released a statement on Chyna’s passing: “WWE is saddened to learn of reports that Joanie Laurer, best known for competing in WWE as Chyna, has passed away,” the professional wrestling organization said in a statement. “A physically striking and talented performer, Chyna was a true sports-entertainment pioneer.”
WWE Chief Brand Officer Stephanie McMahon also responded to the news:
Three-time WWE Divas champion A.J. Brooks, known in the ring as A.J. Lee, was a fan of Chyna’s growing up but she didn’t know her personally. Brooks told The Washington Post, “My heart goes out to Chyna’s true friends, fans and family. She was a pioneer and inspiration to a generation of women wrestlers.”
Here are more reactions from former wrestlers: